Skulls in the closet

What does membership in a bastion of privilege say about George W. Bush's character?

Topics: George W. Bush, Academia, College, Books,

One evening in May 1967, a man dressed in a black hood and sporting a gold pin emblazoned with a skull and crossbones approached George W. Bush, slapped him on the back and offered him membership in Yale’s oldest secret society. The governor-to-be accepted and, like his grandfather and father before him, became a member of Skull and Bones.

Skull and Bones is one of the nation’s most exclusive and powerful secret societies. The list of past and present Bonesmen, as members are called, makes California’s Bohemian Grove retreat (also patronized by Gov. Bush and his dad) look like your local Rotary Club. Members have served as senators, secretaries of state, national security advisors, attorneys general, CIA directors and Supreme Court justices. They have also become presidents of universities, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, foundation presidents and founders of investment banks. Two Bonesmen, William Howard Taft and George Bush, were elected president, a post Gov. Bush now hopes to fill.

Much has been made of the Texas governor’s “youthful indiscretions” and of his gentleman’s C’s at Yale. But membership in Bones shaped George W. Bush far more than road trips or college courses. In the wake of the Clinton-Lewinsky mess, character has emerged as a leading theme in presidential politics. An examination of the culture of Skull and Bones should shed some light on the character of the latest Bush who would be president.

Though a seniors-only society, Skull and Bones is more than a tad sophomoric. Each May on “Tap Day,” senior Bonesmen troll around Yale’s campus, selecting, or “tapping,” 15 juniors for membership in the upcoming class. The initiation rites that follow sound like something out of Fred Flintstone’s Water Buffalo Lodge or a Robert Bly retreat. Each knight, as neophytes are called, reportedly regales his fellow initiates with his sexual exploits. (He may or may not be naked and may or may not be lying in a coffin.) During initiation, he endures some sort of physical challenge (mud wrestling? diving into a dung pile?) before being born again with a new name and a new identity. In the outside world, members are never to speak about their society. If outsiders raise the topic, Bonesmen are supposed to leave the room.

Members take their secrecy oath seriously — no insider has ever published an exposi — so it is impossible to separate the realities from the rumors that swirl around the society. One rumor has each new member receiving a $15,000 payout. Another says the interior of the “Tomb” (the eerie Gothic headquarters where twice-a-week meetings are held) is decorated with human remains, including the skulls and bones of notables such as Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and Apache warrior Geronimo.

Are the rumors true? Certainly not all of them; the society is probably not the fountainhead of a vast international conspiracy to spread Hegel’s dialectic via the drug trade. But Bush is not helping to clear the air. Like his father, who has consistently refused to discuss Skull and Bones, he isn’t talking. And members of his 1968 Skull and Bones class whom I contacted either neglected to return my calls or refused to comment on what goes on inside the Tomb. “We don’t discuss those things,” said Roy Leslie Austin, now a sociology professor at Penn State. “We just don’t.”

Skull and Bones was founded by William H. Russell in 1832, more than a decade before Texas joined the union. At the time, men’s fraternal organizations were so popular that politicians like former President John Quincy Adams were denouncing their secret oaths as cancers on the body of the republic. When Phi Beta Kappa responded to the anti-masonry in the air by abolishing its oath of secrecy, Russell (who later become Yale’s valedictorian) founded “The Scull and Bones” as an alternative. For the next century and a half, Skull and Bones, as Russell’s society came to be known, guarded its secrecy with the zeal of Howard Hughes and the nuttiness of J.D. Salinger.

In 1856, Bones incorporated as the Russell Trust Association and members built the grim sandstone mausoleum that is still used as society headquarters. In 1876, pranksters broke into that crypt through a window and investigated its interior. Bonesmen responded by bricking up all the windows, which remain sealed today. Supporters describe Skull and Bones as a meritocracy that, by rewarding excellence in academics, athletics and the arts, has fostered achievement at Yale and beyond. From this perspective, the society’s rites, however secretive or sophomoric, promote fading virtues such as friendship and loyalty. And the society does have an astonishing record when it comes to turning out leaders.

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Russell saw the society as a way to promote and reward academic excellence. But Bones gradually expanded its mission, tapping not only outstanding scholars but also football captains, Yale Daily News editors and members of the a cappella group the Whiffenpoofs. Eventually, the society also began selecting Bonesmen not for what they had accomplished in life but for who they were by birth.

George Herbert Walker Bush was no doubt selected in part because his father, Prescott S. Bush, was a U.S. senator and a Bonesman. But the president-to-be was also a decorated World War II pilot and captain of the Yale baseball team. George W. Bush, who had a less illustrious youth than his father, is more plainly a legacy member, tapped because of his genes and not his deeds.

From its inception, Skull and Bones has been a bastion of privilege — an ideal steppingstone from a preppie past to an establishment future. And so the society has been regularly denounced for its elitism as well as its secrecy. In 1878, the Yale Courant ripped Bonesmen as “vampires of darkness.” Bones, it wrote, was a “a curse to the college” that promoted “royal and stylish living” and divided the undergraduate classes into “castes.” That same year, the Yale Daily News called the society’s mummeries “supremely silly.” During the 1960s, critics claimed Skull and Bones and other Yale-only secret societies rewarded conformity rather than achievement. Today, denouncing those societies as anti-democratic cults is almost as routine at Yale as Tap Day itself.

Bones waited about a century to respond to the criticism. After World War II, it began admitting blacks and Jews. In 1991, the outgoing Bones delegation tried to tap the first Boneswomen. Patriarchs, as Bones alumni are called, literally barred the doors to the Tomb. Led by conservative William F. Buckley Jr., they obtained a court order temporarily blocking non-male members. In the society-wide vote that followed, however, the conservative blue bloods were defeated and a few women were admitted to the rolls.

There are likely many things this society does well. I would love to have been a skull on the wall in a private debate between, say, Sen. David Boren and Sen. John Kerry or authors Archibald MacLeish and John Hersey (all Bonesmen). But I doubt the Tomb fosters the sort of character necessary for leadership in multicultural America and the new global economy. And I am certain it is an unsuitable incubator for the presidency in the 21st century. This is true for Bonesmen tapped for their accomplishments in rowing or debating. But it is doubly true of those who, like Bush, were tapped primarily for the accomplishments of their forebears.

Since our country’s inception, Americans have been profoundly ambivalent about power and wealth. That is why Horatio Alger is as much a part of the American mythos as is the Titanic. We like to worship the high and the mighty, but we love to see them go under. True, the rich are different from the rest of us. So are the powerful. But both are supposed to live, at least in this country, by some rules. The rich are expected to earn their money through hard work or cunning. And the powerful are to earn their power in public elections, not private clubs. Just as many years ago George W. Bush was suddenly tapped for an exclusive society, critics today might charge that he similarly coasted into becoming an odds-on favorite for the White House before a single ballot had been cast.

Stephen Prothero teaches in the religion department at Boston University. He is the author of "The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott" (Indiana University Press).

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